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Bookstores: Lost and found

N Sandhya Rani, writer and translator, reflects on the never-say-die spirit of small bookstores, and marvels at how they pull off what the corporate chains cannot.
Last Updated : 28 June 2024, 21:54 IST

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Good infrastructure, towering buildings, glittering malls and a vibrant nightlife are all attributes of a thriving city. But for me, the life force of a metropolis can be found in the spots and experiences that one feels emotionally connected to — be it a coffee shop, restaurant, park or a performance art venue. An adda, basically. 

Community celebrations too add to the character of a city. There is
Karaga in Bengaluru, Vijayadashami in Mysuru and Durga Puja in Kolkata. Bun maska and vada pav are synonymous with Mumbai, and Hyderabad prides itself on Irani chai and biryani. These are cultural markers. They evoke nostalgia and foster a sense of belonging.

Similarly, Bengaluru’s bookshops occupy a special place in the hearts of writers and readers. It is something corporation-owned bookstore chains can’t rival.

So when Nagasri Book House shut down early this month, I felt as though I had lost a piece of my heart. I am a proud south Bengalurean. When I think of my neighbourhood, I find myself picturing tree-lined streets from Southend Circle to Rajalakshmi Nursing Home, the flower market of Gandhi Bazaar, plays in Ranga Shankara, strong filter coffee at Pavithra restaurant, and music records at Calypso. Nagasri in Jayanagar is among these cherished memories. It felt like home. The shop was a popular hangout spot for novelists and book lovers for nearly 48 years.

Daydreamer to reader

I am in my 50s. Reading and bookshops have been constants in my life. I am from Bangarpet in Kolar district. Growing up, I would rely on taluk libraries and make monthly visits to second-hand bookshops in Bangalore. Sometimes, my friends and I would meet up and read stories published in periodicals. I was often sent to the post office to check if one of my maternal uncle’s job applications had been answered. The reward for my troubles was copies of ‘Chandamama’, a children’s magazine. Stories like ‘Vikram and Betal’ and ‘Rakkasa Kolla’ transported me to another world. They enhanced my imagination. I became a daydreamer. 

In Class 4, I devoured my first novel, ‘Mukthi by Triveni’ in Kannada. But the turning point in my reading life came in my mid-teens. A lecturer in my pre-university college inspired me to explore serious writing. He introduced me to ‘Lankesh Patrike’ — the revolutionary newspaper of the 80s and 90s. I was now engaging with the works of progressive thinkers like P Lankesh, Kuvempu, Poornachandra Tejaswi, Yashwant Chittal, Srikrishna Alanahalli and Niranjana. Later on, non-fiction books became my go-to genre and autobiographies and poetry a fixture.

Indie experience

I discovered the joys of neighbourhood bookshops after I moved to Bangalore in the early 90s. Nagasri was among the many small bookshops that enjoyed thriving business in Bangalore, especially during the pre-modernised and pre-mall era. There was Mecca Book House near Commercial Street, Nudi, Prism and Ankita Pustaka in south Bangalore, Select on Brigade Road and Blossom on the adjoining Church Street. The Mecca store pulled down its shutters long ago. Nudi closed its physical store. But the shop is back on the scene, catering to dedicated readers via WhatsApp.

Independent bookshops are not just places that sell books and chase profits. They are an experience zone. Their service is distinctly personal. They have a social and cultural significance, which draws the local community. Maybe we should call them ‘book spaces’.

Here, you can chance upon an out-of-print collection by your favourite poet, or a work of a new, self-published or unheard of author. The support staff magically fetches the book of your choice from the maze of books stacked from floor to ceiling. They let you go through books and blurbs in leisure, without bothering you much with questions like ‘May I help you?’ They call you if they manage to procure a hard-to-find title you have been hunting for. Before mobile phones became commonplace, they would wait for you to return. I can never forget the glint in their eyes when they would hand over the books I wanted. They know your name and your preference. I say, this relationship is what makes a bookshop a book space.

Speaking of the owners, they are not hard-nosed businesspersons. Their priority is sharing the joy of the written word.

Corporate tactics

Around the turn of the last century, these shops were faced with the
onslaught of commercial book chains. Then came competition from online retailers like Amazon and Flipkart. The shift to digital payments, first during demonetisation and then the Covid-19 pandemic, added to their problems.

One might ask, ‘What is so wrong about giant bookshop chains?’ They offer books but also stationery, candies, candles, wind chimes and toys under the same roof. “That is exactly the problem!” came the response when I posed the question to Samyukta Puligal recently. She is a software professional and a writer. “When I take my daughter to any well-
established bookshop, there are a hundred things she finds more attractive and colourful. She hardly spends time in the books section!” the young mother laments. To counter the distraction, Samyukta has started taking her daughter to public libraries.

For big chains, books are a means to an end. Post-globalisation, corporates came in with a singular motive of minimising cost, maximising profit and expanding their ‘empire’. Selling books under a few ‘popular’ categories like self-help and feel-good was more cost-effective than nurturing readers and catering to local sensibilities. One can draw parallels with the cosmetic industry. It is simpler for a cosmetic company to promote a ‘fairness’ cream rather than meet the needs of diverse skin tones in India. So, they pump in money to ‘build’ a benchmark of fairness and roll out products that leave out large swathes of consumers. 

Veteran journalist G N Mohan, behind Bahuroopi Book Hub in Sanjay Nagar, says corporatisation of any sector is bad. But it is worse when it comes to bookshops. Commercial chains don’t care for indigenous sensibilities or regional literature — they push popular literature. He makes it a point to buy books from independent shops.

D N Guruprasad, who owns Aakruti Books in Rajajinagar, says cash-rich corporations give huge discounts which individual bookstores cannot afford. By luring buyers thus, these chains put indie players to sleep in the long run. But according to Guruprasad, this is not the real danger. The trouble lies in the kind of books they promote.

“They go for capitalistic and right-wing-oriented books. You can hardly find anti-establishment, radical books (on the shelves). The online platforms are programmed in such a way that you think you are making the choice but in fact, the algorithm is controlling what you search,” he explains. 

Beetle Book Shop (Jeerunde Pustaka) in Vijayanagar opened post-Covid. Dhananjaya N quit his well-paying job to set up this shop. His intent was to make available non-popular, alternate culture books. He himself has published translated works like ‘Ambedkar Jagattu’ by Vikas R Mourya, ‘Barayya Mama Bandhu’ by H S Srimathi and ‘Begumpura’ by Banjagere Jayaprakash. A market analysis he made showed people were interested in this category but popular book chains barely stocked them.

Widening horizons

I was a teacher of computer science. I became a writer quite late in life, in my mid-40s. I think all the voracious reading I did before my 40s prepared me. ‘Yake Kuadutite Sumane Nannanu’ (Why is this haunting me so much?) was my first solo book, a compilation of columns on current and social affairs, which I wrote for an online magazine. I remember the support I got from owners of local bookshops.

One even put the copies of my book right on top of the rack and clicked a photo of it for me. It was thrilling to see my name alongside authors whom I grew up admiring.

I have compiled one book on women who have suffered sexual assault, and written 12 books. Three of them are translations and one is a biography. I also wrote two novels, and a poetry collection which I self-published with my friend B V Bharathi.

Reading indeed widened the ways I think. Most privileged people live in a bubble, under the notion that the system is perfect. We hang out with like-minded people, which reinforces that notion. But the system always protects the privileged. That was my takeaway from books like ‘Animal Farm’, ‘Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents’, ‘Byline’, ‘Island of Blood’, and ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought’. Milan Kundera, Orhan Pamuk and Chinua Achebe expanded my intellectual and literary horizons. Writings by H S Srimathi and M S Ashadevi shaped my ideas of feminism.

Through Vyasa Rai Ballal’s book ‘Bandaya’, I learnt about the rise and fall of trade unions in Mumbai. In the poetries of Gulzar, Ghalib, Neruda, Bendre, Adiga, K S Narasimhaswamy and Siddalingaiah, I discovered the beauty, fragility and complexities of life, love and society.

Recently I have opened myself to Dalit and transgender writings. The more I read non-fiction, the more I see different, often contradicting perspectives, on pressing issues like caste, gender and discrimination. They strengthen my notions of the importance of dissent and tolerance, much-needed in the polarising age we live in today.

Global movement

The struggles faced by independent bookstores is not a Bengaluru- or India-only problem. Across the globe, many independent bookshops are falling prey to corporate book chains. ‘Save the Independent Bookstores’ is a resistance movement that originated in America. Andy Hunter founded Bookshop.org in January 2020 to assist indie bookshops. In an interview given to Forbes, he claims that they have “put $30 million into the hands of the independent bookstore owners” since they launched the initiative. Across the USA, Independent Bookstore Day is celebrated on April 27 of every year, and a pledge is taken to save local and independent bookstores. Unfortunately, the movement did not gain momentum in India.

But how far can serious readers go to support an indie bookshop? A learning and development professional, Srikanth Chakravarty is vociferous in his support of independent bookstores. He says he hardly finds non-popular non-fiction books in bookstore chains. On the contrary, indie stores have helped him find such titles in the past. He doesn’t mind letting go of small deals online. However, he finds it hard to pass up flash sales with substantial discounts.

Survival mode

The Covid-19 period was tough for local bookshops. Preetham Gowda, manager of Bookworm on Church Street, said that at one point, paying rent was difficult. Since the pandemic, 40% of their customers have shifted to online purchases, 35% still make it a point to visit the store and the remaining are walk-ins who come to pass the time. But he is happy that the situation is improving.

Bookshops are putting up a fight. They have formed WhatsApp groups of readers to promote books and take orders. They are doing online deliveries. Many of them organise book discussions once or twice a month. This encourages people to visit the bookshop and, yes, boost sales. However, profit margins on the book sales barely match the time, effort and money spent on these events.

But the owners aren’t disheartened. They believe these programmes help build a culture of thinking and criticism.

Dhananjaya says back in the day, these discourses were vibrant. But now, people come to their programmes, sit, listen, buy books and go back. He hopes these book engagements regain importance and spark serious discussion. According to Gowda, footfall makes a bookshop come alive. Guruprasad also feels these meetings are vital to strengthen the bond between bookshops and readers. I can vouch for this, having met prominent writers and social thinkers like Girish Karnad, H S
Venkateshamurthy and H S Srimathi myself at these humble haunts.

Indie bookshops on Church Street and Brigade Road continue to show resilience. Veeraloka Books and Sahithya Loka Book House are helming the ‘Order a book and we will deliver’ drive. Champaca, off Edward Road, is trying every trick in the book — posting book recommendations on social media, setting yearly challenges with reading prompts, curating subscription boxes, and offering gift vouchers and membership benefits. Beetle and Amulya Pustaka have cropped up though the odds are stacked against independent stores.

Being a reader and a writer, in that order, I truly think indie bookshops are the cultural custodians of a community and it is time that communities also see them as one.

Like this story? Email: dhonsat@deccanherald.co.in

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Published 28 June 2024, 21:54 IST

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